Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Digging in the Dirt

Anyone remember the Peter Gabriel song "Digging in the Dirt" from 1992, about psychotherapy and trying to understand the psyche? For some reason, the song popped into my head over the weekend after they announced former UGA marketing professor and triple murder suspect George Zinkhan had "dug his own grave" and been found dead.

Students have asked me in the past few weeks when I'd write about this case. The only reason I haven't is for the same reason I don't write about true crime stories in general: there are several each and every day, and the blog would become too Nancy Grace-like if all I did was opine on the latest sordid crime. But now that things appear to have been wrapped up, I will make a few comments.

I didn't know George Zinkhan and had never heard the name before April 25th. Terry College is its own world over there and I have little interaction with the business folks, but as a colleague of mine joked, better Zinkhan was in marketing than bio-hazards.

I had a vague knowledge of one of the victims, Tom Tanner, whose child was in the same pre-school class as my oldest kid a few years ago, but other than a passing acquaintance, and despite the smallness of Athens, I really wasn't familiar with Marie Bruce, Ben Teague or anyone involved in the case.

Overall, I would say the Athens-Clarke County Police handled the case well, particularly in the hours and days immediately after the shooting. Unlike the UGA police department, which put on an unnecessary show of force (SWAT team officers roaming the campus with semiautomatic weapons for days on end) causing more fear and panic than anything, the ACC-PD was professional and thorough. The chief could have been a little more out front for my liking, but nevertheless, good solid police work.

The local media also fared well in the immediate days after the shooting. Both the Banner-Herald and the Red and Black were cited in national outlets for their reporting, and the AJC down the road was also on top of things.

Can't say the same about the insipid "comments" sections that every online newspaper seems to allow. If people had to register real identities (as the NYT, WaPo, WSJ and other papers do), I wouldn't have much of a problem with it. But allowing any idiot with a screen name like "OU812?" or "notchamama" to opine vile and libelous things about tragedies such as this is unnecessary.

Not to say there aren't light-hearted moments, like the poster who wrote on the Red and Black, the day the cadaver sniffing dogs unearthed Zinkhan's body, "Go DAWGS!" But overall, I could do without "what's on your mind" whenever a story like this hits, particularly when people can hide behind the anonymity of the computer.

While the print media tended to get it right, the broadcast media out of Atlanta was its usually trivial self. I lost count of the times I heard variations of "things like this just don't happen in sleepy college towns like Athens." Meanwhile, it was the second triple homicide this year in Athens, but since the first one happened in a trailer park amongst low income people, I guess the Atlanta media doesn't quite feel it merits news.

And I was surprised by the insensitivity of comments made in the media by some of Zinkhan's former students and colleagues. Like this:

Across the country in Las Vegas, Zinkhan’s former student and University of Las Vegas Nevada economics professor Angeline Close was saddened by the news of his death.

“This tragedy will forever overshadow decades of his contributions,” Close said of her mentor. “I don’t think we’ll ever know what was going on in his otherwise brilliant mind.”

Groan. Comments like this (and others, one of which actually referred to him, without qualification, as a "happy, doting dad") perpetuate the ivory tower, divorced from reality perception of academics.

In other words, I think the philistines out there get it that "brilliant minds" don't generally gun down people in front of their children (as happened with Tanner's child), and "happy, doting dads" don't go on shooting sprees while their kids idle nearby in a car. These kinds of hagiographic comments strike me as inappropriate, given the nature of the crimes he committed, and certainly when uttered without qualification.

However, it fits the media narrative of randomness, paranoia and fear. As I tell my students people don't just "snap" and go on killing sprees, but the more the media can paint that picture, the better they can whip up fear and sell soap.

As to motive and degree of premeditation, beyond it being an obvious domestic dispute from the very day of the shooting, the rest is speculation and may never be known. Domestic killings are, by nature, acts of cowardice, so in that sense, Zinkhan went out (in his shallow grave, hidden underneath a wooden palette) the same way he burst on to the national scene.

Beyond that, I'm sure we'll have to rely on journalists and true-crime writers who will no doubt produce a plethora of books on this case to flesh out the uncorroborated details of what happened (including whether UGA professor Barbara Carroll was also a target).

Don't think for a minute this story won't generate several exposes, as every true-crime writer tries to "dig in the dirt" and explain Zinkhan to the rest of the world. It wouldn't surprise me if movies or television docudramas get made too.

And while 99% of what is written about this case will focus on "why" this happened and primarily on Zinkhan himself, very little will be said (beyond the obligatory "sympathy to the families") of his victims or the children damaged by his actions.

And that's the true loss. I have a few good friends who are involved with the Town and Gown theater group and their loss is immeasurable. As to the kids, what can you say? Innocents whose lives have been upended and forever damaged by the crimes of April 25th.

It's fitting, then, we move beyond interest in the killer and focus instead on rebuilding the lives of those wrecked that beautiful spring afternoon.

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